By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Perhaps Ryan Zimmerman, the young star of the young Washington Nationals, came up with the best way to describe the sea change his team is undergoing, culminating with the hiring of Manny Acta as their manager yesterday.
The statistics are obvious: Acta, 37, will become the youngest manager in baseball, and he replaces Frank Robinson, who, at 71, was one of the oldest. Acta never reached the big leagues, an unknown commodity; Robinson is a Hall of Famer, an icon. Acta appears outgoing; Robinson could be reticent.
"For Frank to have to deal with so many young guys for two or three more years, I think it might get a little tiring for him," said Zimmerman, the 22-year-old third baseman who just completed a sparkling rookie season. "You know, Frank was so good at what he did, and talking to him about hitting was so hard, because he was so much better than everyone else at it that he doesn't understand a lot of things you go through when you struggle.
"I think that's why Manny will be a perfect fit. He's such a young, energetic guy with a great personality. That's going to help our guys. If we're going to have young players, that's a great way to be."
Such was the optimism that is expected and permissible before Acta has managed a game, optimism apparent not only on Acta's beaming face, but on the faces of the men who hired him, Nationals President Stan Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden. At an afternoon news conference at a downtown Washington office complex, the Nationals officially announced they had signed Acta to a two-year contract with two club options of a year apiece.
"I think it's perfect for me because I know what I'm getting into," Acta said. "I like to put things together. We all know what's lacking. We're going to be patient and do things the right way."
The official announcement of Acta's hiring -- a move that was actually completed late last week and became public over the weekend -- brings to a close a seven-week search that was conducted in private and occasionally seemed, from the outside, unwieldy and plodding. Kasten and Bowden, however, defended the process to the hilt. They considered candidates from nearly all conceivable backgrounds, and yesterday, they repeated the same phrase.
"We kept coming back to Manny's name," Kasten said.
Thus, the New York Mets' third base coach -- a man who never played or managed above Class A, who came over from the Dominican Republic and taught himself a new language by reading a book called "Basic English" -- was entrusted with taking over a franchise that has finished in last place in the National League East for three consecutive years and could do so again in 2007. But in the course of an hour-long news conference and a series of relentless one-on-one interviews, Acta handled himself with confidence and a self-assurance that belies his standing as a first-time manager entering a situation in which he is unlikely to become an instant winner.
"We're ecstatic," said team owner Mark Lerner. "He's a tremendous baseball mind. He has a lot of confidence, and he has tremendous presence."
Acta impressed during a two-day interview in Washington that he called "exhausting," one in which he met first with Bowden, then with his top lieutenants -- Bob Boone and Mike Rizzo -- before a long lunch that included Kasten. Later that evening, he met the Lerners, an indication, he said, that he would be in the running. Over those two days -- and in countless phone conversations with Bowden afterward -- Acta said he became impressed with the Nationals' plans to build the franchise into a consistent winner. As soon as the interview was over, Acta -- who also was up for jobs in Texas, San Francisco and Oakland -- called his wife of 20 years, Cindy, and said, "I want this job."
"He said, 'With the growth this franchise is going to have in the future, and the success they're going to have, it's the place for me,' " Cindy said.
The Nationals spoke with managers with more experience -- such as Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella -- and interviewed former Florida Marlins manager Joe Girardi, who said he pulled his name from consideration. Still, as the search continued into November, rumors persisted that the Nationals had approached Girardi about reconsidering.
Kasten wouldn't address specifics about the process yesterday, saying only that by early November -- when Acta was working with a team of major leaguers traveling in Japan -- the club had "really begun to hone in on Manny." Kasten said when he first sat down with Acta, "I knew within 30 minutes that he could be the next manager, that he had the right stuff," and that each conversation he and Bowden had with other baseball executives confirmed that.
"At the end of the day what you're looking for is someone who can lead men, someone who can draw up the plan and convince people to follow it," Kasten said. "I think Manny possesses that."
Acta's next step will be to hire a coaching staff, a process that has already begun; pitching coach Randy St. Claire is the only holdover staff member. Bowden said Acta -- who served as the third base coach for this franchise from 2002 to '04, when it was in Montreal -- would have the most input on the coaches, though he advised that the team will hire "a veteran bench coach that has a lot of experience." But even before doing that, Acta believes his youth will work in his favor.
"I think that has been my biggest help over the last five, 10 years, is being able to talk to these guys about the clothes they wear, the music they listen to," Acta said. "I can relate to them, and talk about every subject out there, while at the same time telling them, 'Hey, you just cannot make the first out at third base, dude.' "
He understands, he said, that he might have a team that makes such mistakes. But he also revealed a defiant streak to all the doubters. Manny Acta grew up with nothing in the Dominican Republic, and now will manage a major league club. So don't try to tell him he can't win.
"I know we're in a little disadvantage when it comes to talent," he said. "But I always think one day Pedro Martinez can have a bad day, and Mike O'Connor can have a good day. And I just take that approach every single day, and I just try to win. We're not going to concede anything here."
Staff writer Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.